Over the years, I’ve received numerous emails from companies describing their new ‘exciting’ website. I chuckle a bit when reading announcements like these because, to be fair, most websites are not as thrilling as skydiving, watching a blockbuster thriller at the theaters, experiencing a live Taylor Swift concert, or attending the Olympics’ opening ceremony.

In the last decade, I’ve observed a significant increase in latent stress in Western culture. People seem more overwhelmed, exhausted and hurried. We can attribute this to various reasons – a global pandemic, divisive politics, racial injustices, wars, social media arguments, and the fear of being canceled. Perhaps what we need is less excitement and more calm, particularly online.

We are all familiar with the term ‘information overload’ and the rapid pace of technological change, but we might be less aware of the cognitive impact. In Nicholas Carr’s seminal work in 2010, The Shallows, he describes how our brains adapt to how we consume information due to the technology we use. In particular, we tend to scan text rather than read it deeply and become easily unfocused – links and ads throughout webpages are designed to divert our attention from our current task. We read differently online.

When Carr wrote The Shallows, iPhones were still in their early iterations, and the iPad was yet to launch. Constant notifications and alerts weren’t an issue back then. Now they are not just on your computer, but also on your phone, watch, car, and flight.

These constant strains – chronic sources of stress – reset what is considered ‘normal’ and our bodies begin to change and adapt to the new circumstances. In 2023, public health researcher Arline Geronimus coined the term ‘weathering’ for this chronic stress.

When redesigning their websites, clients often want to replicate the ‘shiny’ of other websites – such as animations and interactive graphics. However, when we visit many of our favorite websites, we tend to go there for information (news, research, social media) or to accomplish a task (purchasing, scheduling, banking). Distractions, pop-ups, ads, and things that get in the way leave us feeling frustrated and in a heightened state of stress.

I recently visited a resort spa but almost considered not attending my appointment because I’d had a stressful morning of parenting. I was glad I did – everything about the place was designed to exude a sense of calm and relaxation from the moment I walked in the door. The staff were extremely polite and unhurried as they walked me through the intake process and then showed me through the spacious and quiet facilities so I would know where everything was. I’d entered a completely different environment and it impacted how I felt. I left the spa feeling refreshed, energized, and relaxed.

Websites do need to encourage visitors to take action and many intrusive methods with a sense of urgency can work in the short term. But they can also leave visitors feeling all the things we don’t like to feel – overwhelmed, stressed, angry, frustrated, and confused. On a deeper level, trust may have been broken. And things that seem obvious to some can be completely overlooked by others on the website.

I am very mindful of this latent stress level when designing websites. Anything that can be done to simplify, reduce, focus, calm, and assist visitors matters too. A better user experience is a much more sustainable way of doing business online.

Less excitement and more calm, please.

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